In the last few months, as I’ve shared before, I’ve experienced major transitions in the way I live out my Christian identity and ministry. Nine months ago, I was a candidate for priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and happy to move forward into that ministry if I had been invited to do so, and would have served loyally and well for the rest of my days and have counted it a life well lived–even reaching the point where I ceremonially declared at the altar of God Most High my intention to enter that ministry, after being unanimously and without reservation endorsed for such ministry by my seminary faculty; today, I am a hospital chaplain who worships with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Many dear friends have asked for a fuller accounting of how this transition occurred, so I’ll try to lay it out here as best I can. Please know that there is no polemical intent in this posting. When I speak of how my thoughts have developed, I don’t mean to imply that your thoughts should develop that way, too. I’m grateful to my friend Sarah C. and to a chaplaincy fellowship opportunity I’m applying for, as a letter from her and the application process gave me the opportunity to put much of this together. Since I’m not even almost disciplined enough to journal, these were my first opportunities to put this all together in one place.
Making solemn ordination promises at Saint Meinrad Seminary upon faculty reccomendation for ordination, 2016.
That the evolution of my faith life led me to part formal company with the Roman Catholic Church is something that, in a sense, has been coming for years, while just a year ago, I didn’t see it coming and was preparing for a very different path. I use the word “evolution” when describing my faith life intentionally. By that, I don’t mean progression from something lower to something higher or from something worse to something better, but rather that coming out of the chaos of life, with no tool other than the mistake and the mutation, my faith has developed in each period of my life in a way most suitable for its survival and continuation.
In a sense, I’ve been on the same trajectory since my youth in the churches of Christ, a trajectory of asking questions and not letting my opinion yesterday be the dictator of my decisions tomorrow. It makes life messy–hitting the mid-life reset button has its challenges—but without that spirit of engaging things, without the same tendencies that led me to part ways with Roman Catholicism, I would never have had the incomparable blessing of being part of Roman Catholicism for 20 years. So, in the revisionist narrative in my mind, anyway, coming into the Roman Catholic Church and walking away were part of the same movement, totally consistent with each other.
Sometimes even I forget that what first put Roman Catholicism on my radar as a teenager wasn’t questions of orthodoxy and authority, but bumbling into documents of Vatican II, especially Nostra aetate on Christian relations with people of other faith traditions. Though I was already a preacher by 14, it didn’t take long into my work to be troubled by our exclusivism. That exclusivism was not bigotry, but the—or, at least, a—logical progression from our teaching on the nature and form of baptism, which blended an Anabaptist view on the form of the rite with a biblical and historically Catholic view on its nature. (That I came from the most conservative segment of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the noninstitutional churches, and that, unlike some peoples’ stories you’ll read, my experiences in the churches of Christ were personally very healthy, have surely colored everything that has come after.) Vatican II’s message that other Christians were separated brethren and that the Spirit of God blows where he wills, even in the lives of followers of other religious paths, was a breath of fresh air, and it inspired me to explore Catholicism further.
Somewhere along the line, given the positions with which I was raised, I got spooked, and took a rightward shift in my thinking, sort of hitting the brakes on the opening of my mind for the sake of security. I turned back to the questions that my upbringing in the churches of Christ had instilled in me—what’s the one, true Church, the one true faith? The problem was that I had already begun to be exposed to enough historical-critical scholarship to tell me that the answer seemed to be almost certainly not a one-to-one institutional correspondence between the true Church and our own fellowship in the churches of Christ. So, I kept exploring Roman Catholicism—being deep in history may not, it turns out, mean ceasing to be Protestant, but it does mean being deep in Catholicism—and found what struck me at the time as much more credible answers to the questions my upbringing in the churches of Christ taught me to ask than they themselves had.
So, in I came, and when I did, at 17, I did so fully convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true Church, teaching the one true faith, that the magisterium infallibly proclaims dogma, and that only Catholic ministries and sacraments—and those they recognize—were valid. It meant embracing that my own ministry and the ministries of those who served my family and me for generations, were, at least in a sense, illicit–”absolutely null and utterly void” is how Leo XIII would characterize them, and that the communions I received every Sunday all my life were so objectively inferior to the ones I was about to receive that I could look forward to my “first communion” after receiving communion with dear brothers and sisters in Christ for ten years.
Photo with friends after Confirmation and reception into the Roman Catholic Church, 1998
Still, compared to the ideological—and, to reiterate, entirely non-bigoted—exclusivism of the fellowship of my youth, Catholic exclusivism is quite moderate—as far removed from the perspective of many in the churches of Christ as the churches of Christ are from Westboro—so even becoming a conservative, EWTN-style Catholic was a liberalizing move. I found my experience of Catholicism to be truly awesome. That’s not just diplomacy or false graciousness. The language and imagery I use to relate to the divine is to this day deeply Catholic. Thomas Aquinas remains and shall ever be my homeboy. Albeit sometimes with some nuance, I can’t think of a single thing affirmed by Catholic teaching that I can’t assent to.
The affirmations are great. It’s them pesky negations!
Even now, I have no problem identifying the Roman Catholic Church as a true Church, the Catholic faith as a true faith, but my conviction that it is the one true Church, the one true faith started eroding as early as 1999 and 2000, when I was first in undergraduate seminary. I had outstanding professors in scripture in both college and grad school, and, being a Bible dork anyway, I dove into critical scholarship of scripture and Church history. (Though always as a buff; I’m too unsystematic and dyslexically monoglotic to be a real scholar myself.) In undergrad seminary, we all majored in philosophy, and I tried, between awesome nights of making memories with my amigos, to take seriously the work of exploring perspectives that challenged my own. As a teenage preacher in the churches of Christ, I once preached that we should give serious thought to including the Apocrypha in our Old Testament canon, not imagining that this tangential idea would put me on a path into Catholicism. As a 20 year old seminarian, I wrote papers defending the validity of Anglican orders and Mormon baptism, not imagining that these tangents were the first steps on a long journey out the back door. I remember my reaction when reading Cardinal Ratzinger‘s—who I actually admire quite a bit and whose Introduction to Christianity is one of my all-time favorite works of theology—Dominus Iesus, which reiterated the Catholic claim that non-Catholic communities don’t merit the name church: It started with an ‘m’ and rhymed with “high class.”
I took to heart the Thomist principle that the divine is unknowable as it is in itself, that all God language, even inspired God language, is an analogy in which the proposed likeness is exceeded infinitely by unlikeness. It seems to follow from this that all narrative God language is myth—even when it’s historically rooted—and all propositional God language is metaphor. That made dogma itself a problematic concept for me. When two metaphors stand in tension—or even contradiction—I’m not sure it’s meaningful to say that one of them is wrong. More or less helpful from a certain perspective, and sometimes even harmful, but facticity and falsehood strike me as simply out of the metaphor’s jurisdiction. Proposing a set of metaphors as dogma and anathematizing others—no, anathematizing people because they prefer others—when even the orthodox proposition is infinitely more unlike the reality of the divine than it is like it, became a harder and harder sell for me over the years. I happen to think that Nicaea and Chalcedon—and even, in its own way, Trent—were brilliant, and they remain in large part the prism through which I view God. My issue was never with the dogmas, but with dogma itself.
As I’ve explored and continue to explore the historical origins of scripture and of the Church, I’ve found the model of an originally uniform and orthodox Church being split and degraded by heretical sects and ideas, the model often proposed both in the churches of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, not to match the evidence particularly well. Instead, it looks a lot more like diversity all the way down. The Matthean community is definitely not the Pauline, is definitely not the Johannine, and they’re sometimes in deep tension, yet all are Church. The solution to Christian disunity I held in my youth—to oversimplify–was to de-Christianize everybody outside our gates. The Roman Catholic solution—also oversimplified–is to hope for the day when other communities are absorbed by her own. My present mindset is that the most historically conscious means to unity—the most authentic way, if you will, to restore first century Christianity—is to welcome and celebrate a diversity of perspectives and communities. I don’t mean by that a sheer relativism, as if all differences between theologies don’t matter—I’m fully ready to scrutinize my pet peeve theologies, like double predestination, the prosperity gospel, or the exclusion of women from an equal place in ministry—but they matter less than what we hold in common, the Lordship of Christ, and I feel bound by conscience to welcome those who hold contrary views to the Lord’s Table. When the day came when I was in search of a new community for my primary affiliation, then, it would have to be one which extended such a welcome.
I stayed in the Roman Catholic Church for years out of a sense of loyalty and true love for a community that has enriched my soul for so long—and I was so greatly blessed by my time with them. But I reached a point last year where it was made painfully clear to me that as a minister, there simply was no longer a place for me to serve healthily and with integrity. I used to say that I’d have made a heck of a priest in 1975. While there were plenty of tensions and high emotions in my departure, there’s no ill will. Like Paul and Barnabas, my dear Catholic friends and I will continue to serve the same mission, just in different places and in different ways.
The Disciples of Christ came on my radar several years ago. Once I got over the need to salve my own insecurities by being an apologist and going on the attack against the churches of Christ, I began re-exploring my own faith heritage. I found much in my own Stone-Campbell roots that spoke deeply to me where I was at, especially in Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone. The Disciples have carried on with the unity pillar of the Restoration Movement on a progressive and inclusive trajectory that feels very much like home for me. For years, I’ve thought of them as the community I would join if I were in the market for a community. It’s just that I wasn’t in the market until recent months. I’m very hopeful for our future together.